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The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts

3.48  ·  Rating details ·  8,829 ratings  ·  1,921 reviews
To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.

In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular
Hardcover, First Edition (U.S.), 280 pages
Published April 19th 2016 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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Janelle I am a librarian, and I can confirm that we are indeed "badass." So this title is not only eye-catching, it's factual.…moreI am a librarian, and I can confirm that we are indeed "badass." So this title is not only eye-catching, it's factual.(less)
Lynn Welburn Caught my attention immediately, combination of bad-ass librarians and Timbuktu where I have always wanted to go. I knew it was a winner.

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Dec 03, 2015 rated it it was ok
This book really isn't what the title or description led me to believe what it's about. It's ostensibly about Abdel Kader Haidara who collected thousands of centuries old Islamic and other texts in Mali and then attempted to keep them safe from Al Qaeda as they took control of much of Mali. It does obviously include that story, but it really moreso concentrates on the war and Al Qaeda. There are long chunks of the book that seem to never mention Haidara or the books at all. If you were intereste ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
This book was recently mentioned in the ALA Think Tank Facebook group, so I imagine every library and librarian in America will end up with this book. I wonder how many of us could have done what this librarian did!

The title of this book covers just about everything the book is about, in a nutshell. I learned a lot about the early (medieval) literary of north Africa, which makes sense considering Egypt is not far, but I did not know much about the manuscripts and academic culture covering centur
Dayle (the literary llama)
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ / 2 conflicted stars.

Review: I'm conflicted, because while the book was interesting, it is definitely not all that it's promised to be or promoted. The majority of the book is consumed with the actions and movements of a constantly shifting war. And while, yes, this is important information and necessary to understanding the pressure and danger to these precious manuscripts, in the end, the books became a lesser thread in the story, only being mentioned sporadically.

The first third
Sep 10, 2016 rated it liked it
It's mind boggling how one person could achieve so much. Mr. Haidara you are a hero. My hats off to you with highest respect and admiration. ...more
Jessica Jeffers
Apr 22, 2016 rated it liked it
I recommend this book with a caveat: it's not really all that much about the bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu.

Nope, maybe 20%, tops, is about the librarians' race to save the world's most precious manuscripts.

This is really about the jihadi occupation of Timbuktu [and other parts of Mali] that happened in 2012, and which you probably never heard about because a lot of Western media tends to ignore Africa. Or maybe I just missed it somehow? I know I am not the biggest follower of international aff
Clif Hostetler
Nov 05, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: current-events
This book gets its title from librarians who thwarted the wishes of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) by secretly moving 377,000 ancient manuscripts hundreds of miles through a war zone. The terrorists weren't the only threats they faced because the government soldiers at road blocks were also erratic and unpredictable.

This book is part history, part description of Maghreb regional politics, and part adventure story. The book makes clear to the western reader that Timbuktu has a proud histo
May 31, 2016 rated it it was ok
I really wish that I had liked this more. A great initial start of the book eventually flounders when Mr. Hammer starts going into the unrest in the Mali region and how that impacted Timbuktu. I think just a few pages here and there would have been enough to set the scene. Instead the entire book reads like a who's who of Al Qaeda and every military operation in the region. I just lost interest a good 1/3 through the book and never recovered.

I really did love reading about the history of Timbukt
I was fascinated by this account of the libraries/archives of irreplaceable old manuscripts in Arabic and other languages of North Africa and the Middle East. The first chapters introduce us to the main players in the manuscript biz, as they try to find & trade for these delicate, rare documents and set up local archives to store them.

I think many people forget how sophisticated the Arab world was, back when Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages. They were responsible for maintaining scientif
Joy D
In this narrative non-fiction, journalist Joshua Hammer relates the efforts to collect and preserve centuries-old manuscripts in Timbuktu, Mali. It covers the lives of Mamma Haidara and his son, Adbel Kader Haidara, the methods they used to gather the historic documents, and the establishment of a library. In the wake of a 2012 military coup and jihadist takeover, the librarians and archivists associated with Haidera worked in secret, at great risk to personal safety, to transport these precious ...more
Maggie Macklin
Dec 08, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I received this ARC from Simon & Schuster and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Wow, do I feel completely ignorant about the world around me after finally putting this one down. I know where Mali is on a map but I had no idea that there was a major conflict from 2012 that lingers until present day. Further still, I had NO IDEA that dedicated and brave as all-get-out scholars, academics and ordinary citizens risked their lives to smuggle some of the world's most precious literary treasur
Apr 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites
This should get a prize for the best book title of the year. It tells the story about Timbuktu as a centre of learning from the 1300's. It was renowned for its universities, scholarship including religion, humanities, science and music. This scholarship lead to hundreds of thousand of manuscripts, including those on astronomy, mathematics, music, poetry and medicine. These manuscripts were often beautiful works of art wonderfully written and illustrated, illuminated with gold. Over the centuries ...more
Angie Reisetter
Feb 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: firstreads
This book is not only a telling of how precious manuscripts were protected from Al Qaeda (AQIM, its arm in northern Africa) in 2012, but a painting of the context in which that adventure happened. To understand the audacious act of these librarians struggling to preserve their heritage, we need to understand just how valuable and remarkable that heritage is. We also have to understand the librarians' bewilderment. To us, Mali may just be another desert full of crazy Islamic jihadists, but it was ...more
Dec 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
For centuries Arabic manuscripts were collected by private households inn the West African country of Mali and particularly Timbuktu. These were gilded manuscripts painted with real gold, and showed vibrant colored illustrations of nature. Some were scholarly in nature and complex such as the creation of the leap year, medical, astronomy and most were written in stylized Arabic. These highly valued manuscripts were handed down from family member to family member to be their caretakers. Why caret ...more
3.5 stars.

It's been three days since I finished this book, and I still don't quite know what to make of it. First of all, it's a fairly astonishing story. I - being the vague, gets-her-news-from-Twitter type that I am - had no idea that Al Qaeda had a presence in Mali five years ago. So from that perspective, this was incredibly educational.

The fact that librarians are badasses who will go to ridiculous extents to protect their collections comes as no surprise to me, being a librarian and all.
Jacob Overmark
May 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
When it first surfaced in the news that a great deal of the ancient manuscripts had been saved against all odds I shed a few tears in relief.
Timbuctoo has been on my “travel radar” for decades. I have so wanted to pay my respects to a city in which so much wisdom and thirst for knowledge flourished during a time when we in Western Europe only cared about our next meal.
Timbuctoo has lived through ages of changing winds, many times falling prey to invaders carrying a strict version of Islam with
May 17, 2016 rated it liked it
Hammer's style is so inclusive to tangent details that this is a truly difficult read. You are tracing centuries of history for this region of Mali, and the forces that have controlled it. For most of the book, the Timbuktu collection seems secondary to the larger Al Qaeda background field/ present dominance. And all of those progressions and former cycles of Islamic lessening or tightening "authority" are a large percentage of the read. This is a 1000 character tale of dozens of rulers and myri ...more
Mar 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Timbuktu was a leading center of Islamic scholarship in the medieval era leaving a precious inheritance of hundreds of thousands of illuminated and gold plated manuscripts on subjects ranging from jurisprudence to musicology, from medicine to poetry. When Al Qaeda forces took control of Mali in 2012 enforcing a strict interpretation of Shariah law, these texts became endangered. This book chronicles the collection of these ancient texts in libraries in Timbuktu, the occupation by Al Qaeda, the d ...more
Apr 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This book is a page turner. It is fascinating and horrifying and inspiring and unfinished. It is so up-to-date including references to last November's terrorist attacks in Paris and yet there is no final resolution to the situation in Mali.
I had heard about the Golden Age of Scholarship in Timbuktu in the 1500s and 1600s. That a tolerant, eclectic Islamic society enabled scholarship in theology, science and medicine to flourish and that illuminated manuscripts chronicled this history. It was of
Richard Derus
Dec 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
A journalistic telling of a summer-blockbuster level tale...not that that's a bad thing!

What's most exciting in the book is the interaction of Al Qaeda and the resistance. What's least exciting about the whole story is the fact that we need to be told about the awful and hideous actions of the hate-filled anti-intellectuals who are, even as we speak, eviscerating an entire world's millennium of progress so their imaginary friend won't be mad at them.

And then there are the angry anti-intellectual
May 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
What a fascinating account! The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer is a story of the past, and an account of present terrorism and destruction of the world's treasures. It's a story of courage, and the story of a people who treasure the written word. It's also the story of those who would destroy it.

Mali has a lengthy history, "a vibrant culture of manuscript writing and book collecting centered in Timbuktu". By 1509, Timb
May 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
If you never thought of librarians as bad-ass, read this book and it might just change your mind! This is the true story of the librarians, who at risk to their lives, sneaked thousands of invaluable manuscripts out of Timbuktu in Mali. In 2012, an alliance of Tuareg separatists and Al Qaeda jihadis captured the city of Timbuktu and the jihadis imposed strict Sharia law on the city. It was feared that manuscripts on secular subjects such as mathematics, science, and literature, as well as promot ...more
Apr 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
Originally published at Reading Reality

April 10-16 is National Library Week, so The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu was an absolutely irresistible title to review this week.

But the story in this book is a lot bigger than just the librarians, and goes a lot further back. Yes, we do have the story of the librarians who rescued the manuscripts, but also a whole lot more. Because the author has taken the story and set it into the history of the region, and provides the context for why the rescue was
Lubinka Dimitrova
Well, the title pretty much sums it all up (although I find this particular wording quite inadequate, and not a very successful one for that matter. There in no Indiana Jones hidden in the pages of the book).

Other than that, the book was more valuable as an insightful source of information about the general situation in Mali and Al Qaeda's action in Northwest Africa. I wouldn't really call the manuscripts in question "world's most precious", that's for sure, but the general story behind the col
Brandon Forsyth
Dec 31, 2015 rated it liked it
I wish I liked this more. There's a great story here, but it feels really elongated over the book's (already-slim) 250 pages. Hammer mentions that this had its origins in a magazine piece, and you can feel that in the extended descriptions of the theatre of battle between the French army and the Al Qaeda forces, or the breathless transcription of Reddit or Kickstarter fundraising drives. There's just not a lot of insightful coverage here - it feels broad, but not deep. I'd love to know more abou ...more
According to the title (and subtitle), this is meant to be about librarians in Timbuktu (a city in the African country of Mali) who saved over 300,000 manuscripts from Al Qaeda after they occupied Timbuktu. Really, there was some about the guy collecting all these manuscripts, and later on, about evacuating them all; but, the majority of the book was really about the history of Islam, and the history of the area.

I was disappointed. I guess I’m just not that interested in the history, at least t
Dec 05, 2016 rated it did not like it
The best and maybe only good part of this book is the title, and perhaps the personal stories of the bad-ass librarians that go largely untold. This is mostly a dry recitation of history and events leading to the Al Qaeda occupation of Timbuktu. The story of the manuscripts seems secondary and the author seems to insert himself into the story unnecessarily at odd times. I am not a big fan of non-fiction and this book doesn't have me rushing out to read more! I wanted to like this but couldn't. ...more
Ttoally not a bad book - the narrative is cool, but the delivery of the information was not to my liking. The bits about the manuscripts (finding them, finding a means to store them, saving them, etc.) was fun, but the middle parts about the politics/military history of the Middle East was really dry imo. It was important context for the last quarter of the book, but I can't honestly say I enjoyed listening to it.

However, my husband (we were listening to this together on a road trip) LOVES poli
Michael Austin
Jan 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2017
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is not really the story that it bills itself to be, but that's OK. The actual story is better. Really, though, it is three stories told in succession that culminate in the dramatic manuscript heist that was not quite as dramatic as it is portrayed in the blurbs. That is OK too. Nothing is ever as dramatic as it is portrayed in the blurbs.

The first story--and to me the most interesting one by far--is the story of how the nearly 400,000 manuscripts managed to fin
Nov 10, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: arc, non-fiction
Clearly with a title like Bad-Ass Librarians I had to request this book right away right? Bad-Ass is definitely an apt descriptor for Abdel Kader Haidara and his band of merry men in Mali. I had no idea of the scholarly history of Timbuktu over the ages and it was fascinating. Hammer describes how manuscripts were once dispersed among families and Haidara crossed Mali back and forth as a young man buying them back to be placed into a library. That Haidara was able to rescue the manuscripts he fo ...more
Lis Carey
Timbuktu is a city with a storied history, and one lesser-known piece of that history is that twice during the Middle Ages it was the center of a flowering of education and scholarship. In the 1980s, a young man named Abdel Kader Haidara, a collector for a government library, traveled the Sahara Desert and the Niger River, collecting ancient Arabic manuscripts, both religious and secular, rescuing them from decay and destruction, and bringing them back for preservation. This part of the story in ...more
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Joshua Hammer was born in New York and educated at Horace Mann and Princeton University, graduating with a BA in English literature. In 1988 he joined Newsweek Magazine as a business and media writer, transitioning to the magazine's foreign correspondent corps in 1992. Hammer served, successively, as bureau chief in Nairobi, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Berlin, Jerusalem, and Cape Town, and also was ...more

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17 likes · 5 comments
“The extremists had declared jihad against anyone and anything that challenged their vision of a pure Islamic society, and these artifacts - treatises about logic, astrology, and medicine, paeans to music, poems idealizing romantic love - represented five hundred years of human joy. They celebrated the sensual and the secular, and they bore the explicit message that humanity, as well as God, was capable of creating beauty. They were monumentally subversive.” 5 likes
“We are a city that has had Islam for one thousand years. We had the greatest teachers and universities. And now these Bedouins, these illiterates, these ignoramuses, tell us how to wear our pants, and how to say our prayers, and how our wives should dress, as if they were the ones who invented the way?” 2 likes
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